A step away from an abyss: the night Ukraine almost lost the visa-free travel

Just yesterday Ukraine could slip back to Yanukovych times. For those of you who missed this close call, UCMC presents an abridged translation of the article by Serhiy Sydorenko originally published in Yevropeiska Pravda.

On Tuesday, the European Union officially accused Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General of undermining the work of the National Anticorruption Bureau (NABU). One day earlier, the US expressed doubts as to whether Ukraine actually wants to combat corruption. One would think it is impossible to miss hints that obvious, however, the official Kyiv managed to do that: at night between Wednesday, December 6 and Thursday, December 7 Ukraine almost crossed the red line in its relations with Brussels.

What has happened?

The “war of all against all” among law enforcement agencies which culminated in SBU and Prosecutor General’s office compromising NABU’s undercover agents, reached its peak on Wednesday evening.

The website of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament) published the draft law no.7362 with quite an abstract title “On amending the laws on parliamentary control”. According to it, the MPs would have received the right to dismiss NABU director, head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO), any member of the National Agency for Corruption Prevention, and director of the newly established State Investigation Bureau with a simple majority of votes and with no justification, audit, or court decision required. That way all anti-corruption agencies would become fully controlled by the parliamentary coalition and could be easily turned into a political instrument.

The draft law was co-introduced by Artur Gerasimov, head of the faction Petro Poroshenko Bloc, and until recently, President’s representative in the Verkhovna Rada, and Maksym Burbak, head of the Narodny Front faction. That level of co-authorship happens only when the document has been agreed by the ruling coalition and by the Bankova (Presidential Administration) and is to be adopted as soon as possible – as soon as enough votes are found.

The draft law would be expanding the Parliament’s powers; thus, the positive votes were easy to get. To make it faster, the draft law was registered with the non-competent but controlled parliamentary committee on state construction. This allowed registering the draft law for the consideration for the next morning already.

What does the visa-free travel have to do with it?

It may seem unobvious but there is a direct link between NABU activities and Ukraine’s visa-free travel with the EU.

The EU waved visas for Ukrainian citizens only after Kyiv implemented the Visa Liberalization Action Plan. Anti-corruption requirements were the most complicated ones, it took years to implement them. One of these was to set up the system of independent anti-corruption institutions (including NABU) to investigate high-level corruption. Together with granting the visa-free regime, the European Union approved a new mechanism allowing to suspend it. The European Commission has to report to the European Parliament and to the Council of the European Union at least once a year until 2024 on how Ukraine is implementing its visa-free commitments. If even one of the criteria is not properly met, the EU must start the procedure for suspending the visa-free regime.

“We are not currently ready to publicly speak about suspending the visa-free travel but in conversations with our Ukrainian colleagues, we have given that signal. The issue is already on the table,” said one of Yevropeiska Pravda’s sources in EU institutions.

Money talks

“The visa-free lever” is called “nuclear weapons” in Brussels, and it really is. The politician responsible for Ukraine losing one of a few signs of its European integration will be done with for good.

However, the West has other levers, both political and financial, and they did use them that night as well.

Yeropeiska Pravda has no information as to whether the details of a new tranche of the EU macro-financial assistance were discussed during the night-time negotiations, but they will be definitely in focus on Friday during the meeting of the Ukraine-EU Association Council. After the “anticorruption coup” attempt there are no doubts Brussels will draw clear anti-corruption conditions for Ukraine to get the money.

The IMF has already made it crystal clear: Kyiv has to stop the attack on NABU and set up the anti-corruption court in order to continue the program of cooperation with the institution.

The White House refrained from statements last night, but the general mood was well transmitted by Michael Carpenter, former advisor to Joe Biden and one of the key experts on Ukraine.

The part referring to security assistance deserves particular attention as the fight against corruption is not just a condition of the EU or the US. It is one of the key criteria defining the depth of the Ukraine-NATO cooperation.

Why did this happen?

Possibly because the actual Ukrainian authorities are twice more competent compared to its predecessors when it comes to international negotiations.

Every time a critical situation arises, Poroshenko somehow manages to convince the international leaders that Kyiv is committed to the reforms, it is just the divided Parliament and Russian army that prevent Ukraine from moving forward. A bright example is a recent situation with the macro-financial assistance. Before Poroshenko’s visit the European Commission was discontent with Kyiv losing 600 million euro because of reform back-pedaling, however, after meeting the President the agreement was made to balance this loss with a new program allocating about two billion euros.

Such achievements seem to have given Kyiv a false sense of permissiveness. This resulted in a coalition draft law destroying NABU’s independence.

Negotiations between foreign diplomats and Ukrainian politicians on this matter continued until the morning. Direct calls to suspend the support programs for Ukraine appeared, as well as a discussion in the EU to put on the agenda suspension of the visa-free regime.

Last night Ukraine’s internal actors together with external pressure helped prevent the country from making a step into the void. By the morning the ruling coalition realized the possible consequences of their initiative, and the draft law was excluded from the parliamentary agenda for Thursday.

In the morning, international partners received phone calls from the Bankova claiming that the opinion of the West had been heard and the draft law had been thus “buried”.

The “corruption coup” was defeated, although the evening before there was no certainty at all as to whether it could be prevented. However, it is very important to make sure that such an idea does reappear once again in a new form.

How to save your face?

Narodnyi Front now insists that the draft law was initiated by the Bankova, however, it is Narodnyi Front who were the most active in promoting it.

On Wednesday evening, Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced the decision to vote the draft law on the so-called “parliamentary control”. His post was immediately shared by the actual second leader of Narodnyi Front Arsen Avakov.

The situation changed after the coalition was made give up the notorious law. Narodnyi Front publicly promised to support the anti-corruption court and NABU’s independent auditors. So why not keep demanding that they implement their promises.

Serhiy Sydorenko, editor of Yevropeiska Pravda